It was seven in the evening on the 4th of May – and I was about to retire after another monotonous day – when word reached me that the 2020 Brunel Poetry Prize winner had been announced. Inua Ellams, appearing on the shortlist for the fourth time, did not win. Despite the initial shock at the outcome, I continued the conversation with a fellow writer and poet, learning about the winner – Rabha Ashry, Egyptian poet based in Chicago.
In the days following, I discarded my sentiment, did some online reading. The prominent question that needed answers was: Why should any African poet be enthusiastic about Brunel, especially in light of this statement made in a Brittle Paper-review of the 2019 Brunel Prize shortlist: “Through varying styles and themes, all the poems have one thing in common: a determination to speak the truths of their realities, which is what good poetry should do. These poems are strong. However, whether they represent the high quality of contemporary poetry by Africans is another question entirely… Looking at the finalists, one would be forgiven for assuming that the 2019 prize was open only to Africans in the diaspora.” (Read full review here)
What was the case for an African poet residing in Africa if the last three winners were all poets in the diaspora? And what was the thing about consecutive shortlisting without winning? Were those coincidences? For a prize “aimed at the development, celebration and promotion of poetry from Africa,” what were the odds for a poet from Africa?
Let’s begin with the film Lemonade, the accompanying feature to Beyoncé’s 2016 album of the same title, her most successful studio album till date. The sixty-five minutes procedure “used poetry and prose written by British-Somali poet Warsan Shire,” with five poems adapted over the course of the film. Following the premiere, attention turned to Shire, with traffic building so high she trended on Twitter.
Three years before the release of Lemonade, Shire emerged the inaugural winner of the Brunel International African Poetry Prize, chosen from a total of 655 entries. Her poems, described as, “…beautifully crafted, subtle and understated in its use of language and metaphor yet still able to evoke a strong sense of mood and place that touches the reader,” ushered in an affair that has so far produced thirteen winners.
The Brunel African Poetry Prize, founded in 2012 by poet and novelist Bernadine Evaristo, was created upon her realization that “poetry from the [Africa] continent could also do with a prize to draw attention to it and to encourage a new generation of poets who might one day become an international presence. African poets are rarely published in Britain. I hope this prize will introduce exciting new poets to Britain’s poetry editors.”
Prior to her win, Warsan Shire had released a poetry pamphlet, Teaching My Mother How To Give Birth. Following her Brunel win, Shire was profiled by the New Yorker, with her poetry said to, “[evoke] longing for home, a place to call home, and is often nostalgic for memories not her own, but for those of her parents, grandparents, uncles and aunts, people who forged her idea of her ancestral homeland through their own stories.”
Did winning the Brunel Prize sprinkle limelight on Shire? Shire remarked, “If anything there’s been a real focus on the fact that I’m Somali. Because even when I won the award, it was announced as “Somali wins award”. I mean, East African people were really proud of it, Somali people were really proud of it, and neighbouring countries – like Ethiopia – they were really proud of it! It brings people to you. I am really grateful and honoured to have won and for the judges’ feedback.”
Shire, Kenyan-born and London-based, as at the time of her Brunel Prize win had not set foot in Somalia. For her, Somalia was the home she did not know. Regardless, Shire recognizes the contentment that comes with a recognition, with being celebrated by a community whose years have been stained by wars and horrors.
Like all humans, a poet is often shaped by home, by identity, by a sense of place and community. By chronicling the experiences of Somalia in poems, Shire lends her art towards a service she considers “cathartic.”
Fellow East African, Liyou Libsekal of Ethiopia, believes poetry “is such a reflection of who the writer is and how they view things…” Libsekal, who won the 2014 Brunel Prize, esteems the poetry initiative. In an interview, she said, “The competition was pretty much the first public thing I did with my poetry and it’s really been such a great experience. Being shortlisted for the BUAPP also gave me the opportunity to send in some work to the African Poetry Book Fund, and that resulted in the opportunity to publish a chapbook as part of next year’s New Generation African Poets series, so the competition really has impacted me as a writer.”
Libsekal resides in Ethiopia. Upon the completion of her BA in Anthropology, she lived a stint in Vietnam before returning to Ethiopia where she wrote columns for a business magazine. Since winning, she has published her first ever chapbook, Bearing Heavy Things, with APBF, as well as features in publications include Elsewhere Lit, Expound Magazine and others.
A poet’s career cannot be subjected to formulas. No career, in fact. Every growth occurs as a combination of different factors, some beyond the individual’s control. For the poet who is African (place of residence regardless), a win such as the Brunel Prize can catalyse the trajectory.
Consider Safia Elhillo, 2015 joint-winner, who has since gone on to win the Sillerman First Book Prize for African Poets and has received fellowships from Cave Canem, The Conversation, and other places. Or Gbenga Adesina, joint-winner for the 2016 prize. The Nigerian poet and essayist whose poems sample memory, grief, family, loss, amongst others, was most recently the 2019/20 Olive B O’Connor Fellow. A finalist for the 2017 Sillerman First Book Prize, his chapbook, Painter of Water, was published by APBF in partnership with Akashic Books.
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Or consider Romeo Oriogun, the 2017 Brunel Prize winner. Romeo’s works, described as an “urgent, new voice,” breathe grace and freshness and awe. Burnt Men, Romeo’s debut chapbook, immerses the reader in the author’s anguish, in the atmosphere of love and humanity the poems pose. The work, published in 2016 by Praxis Mag as part of their Chapbook Series, could be considered a forerunner of the magic that is Romeo. Sequel to winning Brunel, Romeo has received a W. E. B. Du Bios Research Institute Fellowship, and is currently a MFA Candidate at the Iowa Writers Workshop.
In a build-up to the release of his debut poetry collection, Sacrament of Bodies, Romeo tweeted in acknowledgment, “And lastly, it is dedicated to the most important voices in African poetry today, poets who went out of their ways to birth a renaissance, Chris Abani, Kwame Dawes, Bernadine Evaristo, Mathew Shenoda and others.”
And he is right. Bernadine Evaristo took on a formidable deed with the introduction of the Brunel Prize. At a time when there weren’t enough testaments to the wonder that is African poetry, the Brunel Prize injected a much-needed attention.
Does the absence of a Brunel win disregard the quality of an African poet? Certainly not. The essence of the prize – as is of literary awards – is to draw recognition, not to assert itself as an authority on what works or what doesn’t. Having awarded poets for eight consecutive years, the Brunel Prize has duly recognized and afforded its winners just the precise dosage of momentum needed to advance a career in writing. Notably, the explosion of African poetry on the international stage has carved a path for writers within Africa to dream, to be true to storytelling, to explore the rhythms of poetry.
So again, what are the odds for an African poet? Perhaps it isn’t a question of odds. Perhaps the question is, given their investment in African poetry, “Why not the Brunel Prize?”
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